Navy (2-0) at Western Kentucky (2-2)
Saturday 9/28 2:00 ET
In honor of playing Western Kentucky, let’s all reflect on this great moment in college football history:
I don’t know why but I love that quote so much.
They supposed to be SEC
WKU didn’t win that season opener against Kentucky in 2011, and they went on to get thumped by Navy the following week. The losing streak would eventually extend to four games, including a loss to FCS Indiana State. After going 2-10 the year before, it looked like another long season in Bowling Green… but it wasn’t. A double-overtime win over Middle Tennessee State in game #5 sparked a 7-1 finish to end the season, leaving the Hilltoppers with their first winning record as a FBS program. The momentum carried over into 2012; this time, WKU beat Kentucky thanks to some razzle-dazzle on a two-point conversion in overtime. They would go on to finish the regular season at 7-5 once again, and capped off the season with the program’s first-ever bowl game.
WKU lost that bowl game, but the season was a success. When the decision was made to make the move into FBS football, this is what they had in mind. Going into the state’s SEC flagship school’s stadium and winning. Having your own great stadium. Winning seasons. A bowl game. This was validation. The program had arrived. Unfortunately, when your program is on the lower end of the FBS spectrum, nothing ever stays good for very long. Your success just gets your coach noticed by bigger programs looking to rebuild. So it went with Western Kentucky, as the architect of their on-field success, Willie Taggart, left to become head coach at USF.
The usual routine for a school like WKU would be to hire an up-and-coming coordinator from a larger program and start the cycle at the beginning. However, thanks to certain unusual, uh, circumstances, the Hilltoppers were able to hire a more established coach, Bobby Petrino. Extracurricular indiscretions aside, there’s no arguing about Petrino’s ability as a coach. He won 41 games in 4 years at Louisville, highlighted by the Cardinals’ Orange Bowl win at the end of the 2006 season. After only 13 games with the Atlanta Falcons, Petrino decided to head back to the college game at Arkansas. He led the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl in his third season, and won the Cotton Bowl in year four. Fired for his transgressions off the field, Petrino was given a second chance at Western Kentucky.
Petrino made his coaching reputation as an offensive innovator, which is probably why the Falcons were interested in him. His is a very pro-style, west-coast type of offense, which means several things. The first challenge for the Navy defense is in how Petrino likes to use different formations with a lot of pre-snap movement. Ralph Friedgen wrote an article for the American Football Coaches’ Association in 2006 that sums it up well:
We attempt to gain advantage through the use of formations, shifts, or motion. Formations are like weapons with which we can attack defenses. Knowing how a particular formation stresses a defense is invaluable when trying to gain an advantage. Some formations can outflank a defense or make it adjust and open up other areas. Other formations force a defense to expand and take defenders out of the box. Reducing a defensive front might create an advantage for an offense that runs the football. If the defense won’t reduce, the advantage is in throwing the football.
Shifting and motion might force a defense to adjust if the offense can make the defense think. It might make the defense a little less aggressive. Some defensive adjustments might give the offense an advantage. If we determine standard adjustment in coverage or in defensive fronts, we try to incorporate them into our game plan. If the defense plays the field or the boundary and tries to keep their adjustments to a minimum, we have simplified the defense, and that can make it vulnerable.
Petrino operates using the same basic concept.
Who’s driving this thing?
Playing a west coast offense also means a lot of timing patterns, with slants and hitches thrown after three- and five-step drops by the quarterback. This is where WKU’s problem lies on offense this week; they apparently can’t decide on a quarterback. Timing patterns require the quarterback to be on the same page as his receivers. Brandon Doughty is WKU’s most veteran signal-caller, and is probably the guy who fits the bill the best. Unfortunately for WKU, he also leads the country in interceptions. That’s due in large part to five he had in one game at Tennessee. They weren’t all his fault, so you could give him the benefit of the doubt and write it off as one bad day against an SEC team. You could… except he followed that up with three more interceptions against FBS newcomer (and future Navy opponent) South Alabama. After the Hilltoppers lost that game, Petrino benched Doughty and started freshman Todd Porter against Morgan State.
Benching Doughty was a pretty low-risk move, though. Morgan State is not a good football team, and all WKU needed to win that game was someone capable of handing the ball to Antonio Andrews. Maybe this was one of those situations where you bench a guy for a little while in the hopes that he’ll see the big picture a little better from the sideline, slowing the game down for him when you put him back in. I think that might be the case here. All four WKU quarterbacks played against Morgan State, and none of the other three were that impressive. Doughty, however, completed all seven of his passing attempts for 55 yards. We should find out who is starting later today, but my guess is that Doughty will get his job back.
Does it matter?
No matter who starts under center, Doughty’s mistakes make it unlikely that Petrino will ask him or any other quarterback to do too much. WKU will rely heavily on the running game, which isn’t too bad of an option when you have a guy like Antonio Andrews in the backfield. Andrews is as good as any running back Navy will face all season. He leads all active players in career all-purpose yards. Last season he became only the second player in NCAA history to top 3,000 all-purpose yards in a season. You might have heard of the other guy. Andrews hasn’t let up in 2013, with 99 rushing yards against Kentucky, 111 yards against Tennessee, 122 against South Alabama, and 213 yards and 5 TDs against Morgan State.
Andrews is the headliner, but he isn’t alone. As a team, WKU has averaged at least 5 yards per carry in every game this season.
Maybe fullback size isn’t a problem after all
Navy’s offense couldn’t be off to a better start through two games, but not everyone is getting in on the fun. Last year, the relative lack of production from the fullback position led some to speculate that maybe Noah Copeland was too small for the position. Chris Swain is as big and bruiser-y as they come, but even though he’s received most of the fullback carries so far this year, production hasn’t changed. Last week, Swain ran for only 49 yards. Against Indiana, he was held to a mere 10 carries for 29 yards. Does anyone still think that size is a problem? The issue now is the same as last year; defenses are simply using schemes that limit the number of carries the fullbacks are getting.
Things might be a little different this week. Nick Holt, Western Kentucky’s defensive coordinator, has been around the block a few times. His career includes stops at UNLV and Louisville, where he coached against the option offenses of Air Force and Bob Sutton’s Army teams. I’m not sure what he’s going to run against Navy, but after seeing the quarterback and slotbacks run all day in the Mids’ first two games, I doubt he’ll allow the same thing to happen against him. Whatever he comes up with, the goal will likely be to funnel plays into the middle of the field– right at his best player, Mr. They-Supposed-To-Be-SEC himself, Andrew Jackson. Jackson is a tackling machine, working toward his third straight season of 100+ stops. If Jackson can be disruptive enough to force a few 3rd & longs, then Holt can unleash Xavius Boyd and his 5.5 sacks (most in the country) on the Navy passing game.
The bottom line
WKU’s scheme puts a lot of pressure on Navy’s linebackers. If they sit back in coverage to disrupt the timing on slant patterns over the middle, that just gives Antonio Andrews room to run. If they step up to cover their gaps in run defense, that will leave WKU’s receivers with a lot of man coverage underneath to pass for 6-7 yards at a time. Andrews is the biggest threat, though, so I’m sure that Buddy Green’s first priority is stopping the run. That might lead to a few frustrating dink-and-dunk passing drives, but WKU’s quarterbacks will hopefully make enough mistakes to keep things under control.
The fullbacks haven’t had to carry the load for the Navy offense yet this year, so it makes sense for WKU to put pressure on the one element of the Navy offense that remains untested. With a freshman and two sophomores starting along the defensive line, though, I don’t know if WKU will be able to occupy the Navy offensive line enough to keep them away from Andrew Jackson and allow him to make plays.